Archos 5 (60 GB)
At a Glance
The Archos 5 is a knockout audio and video player, but you have to pay extra for some of its best features.
The Archos 5 touch-screen media player ($350 as of 11/5/2008) offers spectacular video and music playback to go along with its elegant design. It also has a multitude of available accessories and features--which, unfortunately, you have to pay extra to get.
At 5 by 3.1 by 0.5 inches, the 5 is basically the same size as its predecessor, the 605 WiFi. In this iteration, however, Archos has added a generous half-inch of screen--its size is now 4.8 inches, so it takes up almost all of the device's faceplate. Except for a power button and a volume rocker, the Archos 5 is controlled nearly entirely by the touch screen. A chrome casing and a glossy screen give the player a slick look, but the entire device is easily blemished by fingerprints and dust.
The player is a bit awkward to hold because the headphone jack is on the side, jabbing into the palm of your hand. There's space for a jack at the top and bottom of the player, so this design flaw could easily have been avoided. Luckily, Archos includes a handy tabletop kickstand with the player for hands-free viewing. The Archos also has a small but powerful built-in speaker on the opposite side of the jack.
The touch screen is responsive for the most part, but it was difficult to flick through my media library. Scrolling wasn't always smooth; I found myself flicking repeatedly to get a response. This proved frustrating when I was trying to navigate through a large music collection. Music is displayed like a typical file browser with a window showing album art and information about the selected item.
The Archos 5's menu system is easy enough to navigate, but it includes unnecessary menu options for the various accessories you can buy for the player. For example, the second main menu option is for recording and scheduling TV programs via the Archos 5's DVR station, which costs $100 extra. Another menu option is for add-ons, which are basically advertisements for more accessories: GPS, Remote FM, a 3G + Modem, and more. I wish Archos allowed you to customize the main menu to declutter some of these unused options, or only make those options active when the accessories are connected.
Out of the box, the Archos 5 supports AVI, WMV, MPEG4, and Flash video. An extra $20 adds support for h.264, a standard for high-definition video compression. And for another $20, you can buy a high-definition software plug-in to allow 720p playback from WMV HD, MPEG4, or MPEG-2 files. The Cowon A3, another portable video player available at the same capacity for about $50 less, supports h.264 out of the box, as well as other formats.
Video looked great on the Archos 5's big, glossy screen, but I did get a bit of glare in certain environments, such as bright indoor lighting and outdoor daylight. The 800-by-600 resolution is bright and clear, and colors looked accurate. Video played back smoothly with little evidence of ghosting or interference.
The music player supports MP3, WMA (including DRM-protected files, which the Cowon A3 does not support), and WAV files. AAC support is available if you purchase another $20 plug-in. The music player displays thumbnail album art during playback, lets you sort your library by ID3 tags, and allows you to bookmark long audio tracks, such as podcasts and audiobooks. You can tweak audio quality to your liking using the 5-band graphic equalizer. Also, you can easily create and manage playlists directly on the device--something I found very useful.
In our PC World lab tests, the Archos 5 registered a signal-to-noise ratio of 81 decibels (in this ratio, a higher number indicates a cleaner sound). This is an improvement over the 5's predecessor, the 605 WiFi, whose ratio was 75 dB. In my hands-on tests, I found that the audio improved significantly when I swapped the included earbuds for higher-quality ones.
Archos 5 uses both MTP and MSC transfer modes, so you have some freedom in managing your media. I transferred files using both Windows Media Player and Media Monkey (both are MTP-based players), and both worked fine. I also used MSC mode, which works like a portable hard drive: You drag and drop your files into the player.
The Opera Web browser included on the Archos doesn't have Flash 9 support, so many Web sites with video or audio content won't work. Hulu, NBC, Pandora, Last.fm and other flash-based sites either didn't load or froze the browser. Archos had two firmware updates for this device during our loan period, and the on-board e-mail client is still in beta. I was able to log in to my Gmail account and access my inbox, but I couldn't send any outgoing messages. Because the Archos 5 is advertised as a media tablet, it's disappointing that the e-mail application is not fully functional.
The Archos 5 is a beautifully designed portable video player with a stunning screen and very good audio and video playback. Unfortunately, to get the most out of the player, you have to pay extra for accessories and plug-ins, which means the final package could become pretty costly, especially on top of the Archos' already steep price tag.